The Public Theater's new production of As You Like It is about as hip as William Shakespeare has looked in New York for quite a while. While there's little in the way of textual innovation or exploration, it's wonderful to see this comedy about identity crises so solidly understand what it is.
Director Erica Schmidt, recreating the production she first directed for the New York International Fringe Festival, has broken As You Like It into its component pieces, eliminating a few supporting characters, and assembling a group of six young and energetic performers to play everyone else, some fifteen roles in all. For a play about social, familial, and gender identity, this proves nearly ideal, allowing Schmidt the freedom to draw parallels between characters and situations that might be more difficult in other conceptions of the material.
For example, the malevolent landowner Oliver and Orlando, the brother he attempts to kill and who is later banished to the pastoral Forest of Arden, are both played by Lorenzo Pisoni, to greater establish the fraternal and emotional relationships between the two. As the two are frequently at odds physically in the story, Pisoni gets to display his virtuosic acrobatic skills in portraying the two men at the same time, flipping into (or out of) a hat simply by defying gravity. Johnny Giacalone, similarly, plays both the forest philosopher and the court jester, his transformations more subtle, but still interesting. Schmidt also gets a great deal of comic mileage out of the role doubling in the play's final scene, which requires everyone onstage at once.
Bryce Dallas Howard escapes this, if only because her role as Rosalind, the banished noblewoman in love with Orlando who dresses up as a man to survive in the treacherous outside world, has enough identity problems as it is. Howard's performance is quiet and mannered, yet frequently funny, and she displays an easy comic grace in most of her scenes.
What she does not display is the ability to be the central figure of scenes for extended periods of time. Though she exudes some charisma and confidence near the beginning of the evening, she falters in the last third or so of the play when she is almost never offstage. Then - and only then - does her work begin to grate and even occasionally to bore, the lack of dramatic colors on Howard's palette greatly inhibiting the pictures she's able to paint with words. At a time when Rosalind must be at her most electric, the scenes are energized primarily by the appearance of the smart Jennifer Ikeda, playing two country roles with great flair and wit.
As You Like It does recover this and regain its comic momentum as the events draw to a close, Howard's lengthy scenes the only ones during which Schmidt seems to lose her grip on the production. The rest of the time, she presents the story clearly and cleverly, with just a modicum of scenery (including handfuls of leaves), and almost instantaneous scene changes. Her own costume designs help keep the confusion about the actors and the characters they're playing to a happy minimum.
But, with the exception noted above, Schmidt keeps the comedy and entertainment consistently high throughout. This makes her As You Like It buoyant and a great deal of fun almost throughout, a fine interpretation of Shakespeare's wacky comedy - albeit one with a message - that seems an excellent way to usher in the warmer weather, and hearts, of the spring and summer ahead.
The Public Theater